“Over the last couple of decades, filmmakers have allowed themselves to become a bit embarrassed by science fiction’s philosophical side… We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that science fiction should be frivolous, for teenage boys… I think that’s ridiculous.”
So says Duncan Jones, director of Moon, a captivating and quietly thrilling take on modern sci-fi. I think he’s absolutely right.
On paper, this movie might not sound so exciting: it features only one character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a worker who is weeks away from finishing a three-year contract harvesting Helium-3 on the moon. He is completely alone except for the computer system, nicknamed “Gerty” (voiced by the perfectly monotone Kevin Spacey). But a series of strange incidents grow stranger and stranger, until Sam uncovers a secret that I found truly shocking.
I immediately responded to the film’s approach to the future: instead of the typical “glamorous” portrayal of space travel you see in most sci-fi movies, we see that Sam Bell is an ordinary guy with a tedious job. After three years by himself, the cracks are starting to show. He has clearly stopped paying much attention to his appearance. The moon base is littered with his belongings; the whites of the moon base are no longer white. The mobile portion of the computer system is bound to a track in the ceiling, and doesn’t move very fast. This is not Star Trek. It’s the NEAR future.
Sam falls asleep at the wheel of a lunar rover during a routine procedure, resulting in a serious accident. He wakes up back at the base with no recollection of how he got there. And to make things even more disturbing, soon there are two Sam Bells roaming around the moon base with only occasional (and awkward) acknowledgments of their obvious physical resemblance. But these Sams don’t look alike for long, as one of them finds his health deteriorating at a suddenly accelerated rate. He stays bruised and bleeds for a long time. He can hardly walk. His teeth start falling out. What is happening to him?
There is a ticking clock, of course. A support crew is on its way, responding after Sam’s initial rover accident. What will they do when they find the two Sams? Gerty insists that their communications are completely down – but Sam knows this is not true. The other Sam is convinced that there must be a hidden area of the base that holds the answers – and he is right.
I’m trying not to give away any key developments, because the slow and graceful unfolding of this puzzle is one of the film’s primary pleasures. To me, Moon compared with the TV series Lost, which – at its best – provides a genuine sense of mystery and the excitement of discovery. Moon also passes a crucial test for me, the basic question: “Do I believe we’re in space right now?” With almost no budget and some clever visual effects, Moon managed to convince me that this story was actually taking place on the moon, and THEN told a compelling story to go with this compelling setting.
And that’s really all I can say without saying anything – except, of course, for “SEE THIS MOVIE!”